What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Book review.

Steve Talbott’s new book Devices of the Soul is, first, a careful and illuminating examination of technological society by a man conversant with its sources and mechanics; second, a calm, elegant but unrelenting polemic against the particular disorder and infirmity engendered by it; and third, a series of intimations toward the recovery of health. In all three guises, the book is a valuable contribution; in the last, it is most intriguing and provocative. The author is a man of unusual breadth of learning: he turned from organic farming to software programming and technical writing, and from that to online pamphleteering with an electronic newsletter called NetFuture. He was urging caution against the “widespread utopian expectations for the Internet” well before the Internet had hit its stride. In this book Talbott urges nothing less than a recovery of our humanity, which he perceives as threatened by our idol-worship of technology. [read more] devices.jpg

Comments (7)

I've been reading Talbott for a while, and he is resolutely mum on the subject of religion. I can't help but think he is deliberately avoiding it. For someone trying to get us to look beyond materialist "Technopoly", that is just bizarre. He seems quite disenchanted (contrast with Chesterton).

I've long had the inclination to regard modern science as a sort of devil's bargain; science has unquestionably ameliorated the estate of man, but its inspiration - its more specifically modern inspiration, to be distinguished from the status of science in scholasticism, say - in all of that Baconian rot about compelling nature to yield up her secrets, that man might become the master of his destiny, no longer subservient to the whims of fate, has an odour of sulfur about it. This is scarcely surprising, as science in that sense is merely another doctrine of material optimality, another proto-utilitarian dogma of salvation.

I can't imagine what audience Talbott's book is meant for. For the religious, it's preaching to the choir rather weakly it seems; for the materialistic and scientistic, its claims for, in essence, soulfulness seem vague and airy fairy.

There's a story that Africans used to marvel at the British attitude and manner they encountered saying, "It's as if they (the Brits) only use their bodies to carry around their heads."

One might remark that the Africans prized sensuality to their detriment, but the sense of so many Westerners who only seem to exist in a mechanical brain remains apt.

Is mechanical reasoning a step forward in human thinking and being or is it a retreat into fantasy, wish fulfillment; a defense mechanism itself against the painful, emotional realities of human existence which challenge the mind with paradoxes and confusion?

One group of people who epitomize the materialist scientism we find around us is engineers (of all kinds). As a class of men (they are almost all men), you will never meet more emotionally stunted, spiritually dead or oblivious, and innately hostile creatures.

My accountant related to me how the worst group of people he had to deal with was engineers, because they would stare at him in overt anger at the fact that he knew something that they didn't; that the men's helplessness and subordination in such a situation tended to infuriate them.

My own experience online in arguments (they can't begin to be called debates) with people like Steven Den Beste who are given to scientism reveals such an arrogance and invincible ignorance of all simple things human that one feels creeped out with the exchange.

No doubt the Den Bestes feel horrified that the world has such superstitious irrationalists and wild eyed moralists who endanger their freedom in it.

The Church itself once employed such men. They were called Jesuits; so this class of people has been with us a long time.

You often hear in the Beltway and Manhattan the great compliment men give to each other, even those who oppose each other -- they will say that so and so is very bright, very smart.

You rarely hear it said that so and so is very wise or good except as an addition to their brightness.

So the culture promotes a certain kind of bright man, and the species breeds a certain kind of engineer man, and the result is that the bright and the rather soulless form a union which transforms the culture from a moral to an instrumental one.

There is no cure in a civilization to this I know of. Religion survives, but loses its dynamism when it cannot compete with the new data, hypotheses, and world views that rapidly promulgate.

Christianity has no real answer to the question of what is Mind and Consciousness anymore. This question leads a multitude down the mazes of speculation with each new tidbit of observation regarding brain chemistry, structure, and MRI scan.

So long as the world was relatively simple in its knowledge and Christianity's answers seemed rational in explaining reality, you could have a Christendom where 98% of the people believed the Church knew what it was talking about and was worth regarding. If you wanted to know what was what, you went to the Church.

But in all of Christendom, the number of people who truly and faithfully believed that Jesus personally saved them, transformed them, and gave them hope were few. 10% at best.

Now we see Christianity being reduced to to a small, faithful core again in the world because materialism has replaced the Church as explainer of all things real, how and why anything is.

Science is much more successful at explaining the material world and has carried that success into the mental and intellectual one as well. Its seductions in being able to demonstrate what seem to be objective facts about life form an incredibly safe haven for the many who want to feel life is in rational control, that emotions are unimportant, that intuition is gas, that life doesn't have to be messy and painful, that a mind is its own place.

And since we are isolated from tragedy by our wealth, health, and separation from violent enemies, we no longer lose one child for every one that survives. Our beloved wives don't die in childbirth, our parents live into their eighties, our heart disease is treated with bypasses, stents, and such. Polio, cholera, plague, no longer plague us. War doesn't affect us. What need do we have for religious hope when our needs are all met by materialism?

No one writes beautiful love poems (or songs) anymore because the beautiful riot of romantic love which can teach a soul so much about glory, honor, humility, ecstasy, union, fear, joy, and despair have been flattened into EEGs, MRIs, Prozac, psychotherapy, STDs, hooking up, sterile sex, auto-eroticism, and alternate sex acts.

How in the world can a walk in the woods fix all that?

Mark, I think Talbott's audience is pretty clearly people who are disillusioned with the materialist rigidity of many scientists and science-popularizers, but who are not yet ready to take the leap into "irrationalism" that religion entails in their minds. I believe it is an audience of considerable size.

Moreover, Talbott's book is valuable for all the insight it affords into the rigidly materialistic worlds he has inhabited. This guy wrote a book denigrating the lofty claims of the Internet in 1995. He is worth listening to.

Mr Talbott's book appears interesting, particularly so because it avoids the usual 19th & 20th century gop about the dehumanization caused by the factory system and turns instead to the personal loyalties and commitment to the idea and practice of technology. The factory/mass production process of these two centuries, especially the 19th, had it's drawbacks and even evils, but the pseudo humanitarians who criticized it offered no alternatives and saw no benefits. Interestingly their heirs have no problem with the grafting of technology onto the individual, the subversion of individualism of a richer sort, the deadening of the spirit and mind.

Although at first glance such toys as television, computers, and various hand held gizmos that enable the bored to transmit their idiocies to their fellows, may seem trivial but they occupy time, stimulate empty minds, and provide entertainment for those unwilling even to read the latest pulp novel. Pope should only be alive to revise his Dunciad,"in ancient sense if any needs will deal/ Be sure I give them fragments, not a meal". Now we don't even get the fragments.

The placement of materialism, reductionism, and science to the pinnacle of what's left of human thought didn't just happen, instead they moved into the void or space left by declining faith and some sense of humility. By the early 16th century the printing of bibles was already in decline and men turned to newer things, while over time concepts of natural law fought a rear guard action, eventually to be eviscerated by Descartes and de la Mettrie.

Emergence is an almost lost philosophical concept, to our moderns the whole is not greater than it's parts, the uncoordinated and minute explaining while degrading everything. And although there is much in physicalism or materialism that is unanswered, the notion of they being scientific questions is enough for the new faithful.

I'm not certain the Mr Talbott satisfactorily addresses the remedies. Did I miss his suggestion of a rejuvenated study and appreciation of the past, it's glories, it's lessons and wisdom?
Does he suggest a return and commitment to the knowledge and discipline of tradition?
Does he attack the bastardization of language, the lack of distinctions and taxonomy that has allowed the absurd and anti-human signification of Man as Machine?

Regardless I will read his work, he is still a foe of numbing specialization, blinkered narrowness, and the secular faith in things not human and not wise.

Actually, John, "emergence" is the cry of many a materialist in the philosophical world. Makes 'em feel like they don't have to admit to being reductionist.

I certainly agree with the critiques of several things that Paul summarizes from Talbot's book--any form of materialism as a philosophical position, the overuse of computers in education, and of course the dehumanizing of the mentally retarded.

Speaking for myself, though, I find it hard to blame these things on machines. There's a very healthy engineering spirit and fascination with how things work. This is often associated with males. I have to admit to not having much of it myself. But when I encounter it, I recognize it as one of the good things in the world--the love of a perfect piece of mechanism, the creation of a mind, the cleverness of it, etc. I believe Tony Esolen has a blog post (don't have the link) about going to the junk yard with his son and about how his son enjoys listening to the men talk about car parts and such at the junk yard. If anything, it's possible that an overemphasis on computers is lowering the real understanding of engineering, though I speak without knowledge of what is now actually going on in the field of engineering.

I also have known nice engineers. :-)

Paul, I wish Talbott luck in finding the audience you delineate.

I know a man in silicon valley who is probably open to his thesis who is no rigid materialist, but clearly not inner directed toward religious faith either.

My friend exists in a kind of twilight world where there is no real terra firma beneath his feet, but he doesn't mind. He's non-committed to anything but his close relationships with his family and a few friends.

Raised a Lutheran, he retains its ethical principles, but not entirely its moral values (what does he care about the homosexual agenda, the Left, or Islamofascism? Not much since it doesn't affect him directly).

He's tired of working, would like to retire but has three kids in college. His field of vision is very circumscribed.

He would read Talbott (if he read such philosophical tomes) and agree with him, put the book down and resume his ordinary life without hesitation while admitting he needs to meditate on life more often.

My friend has common sense, a good heart, fair judgment, professional wisdom and talent, self-discipline, and a responsible nature. He volunteers at the Salvation Army teaching homeless people how to get job ready.

He's a great guy who part of the great herd of Americans moving across the plain of reality from birth to death like a mass of buffalo, and he is relatively content with that.

In many respects, he is much happier a man than I am (or you may be). He isn't trying to swim against the tide, rally allies to his cause, herd the cats of public activism, and so forth.

History seems simple in many respects. It's the story of mass migrations of barbarians or the tales of individuals building or maintaining civilizations.

Half a million Huns who want a nicer place to live are going to find their Attila to lead them. Such folks are relatively easy to discover. But is Rome going to find a Caesar who can rally his people, lead armies super competently, and manage his resources, control the factions around him well enough to repulse the Huns or Vandals? That man is not so easy to find.

No, I think the future of America belongs to the party that can find their real or ersatz Caesar before the other parties do; and not to who writes the most persuasive or challenging books.

Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind persuaded many, but affected our academies not a whit.

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